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Friday, March 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Otter wants boost for Idaho schools, higher education

BOISE – Education dominated Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s 10th State of the State message to lawmakers on Monday, as he laid out an aggressive plan to boost public schools and higher education in Idaho.

“We made promises during the Great Recession that we are duty-bound to fulfill,” the third-term governor told a joint session of the Idaho Legislature, including restoring cuts the state made to education. “And now, we have the financial means.”

Otter proposed a 7.9 percent increase next year in state funding for K-12 schools; 8.8 percent for four-year colleges and universities; 9.6 percent for community colleges and 10.4 percent for professional-technical education.

He also called for $10 million in new scholarships; a new program to “lock” tuition rates for four years if a college student performs well; and continuing investments in teacher pay, school technology and counseling.

Otter just touched on his other signature initiative for the coming year: a $30 million plan to provide some basic primary and preventive health care to the 78,000 Idahoans who fall into a coverage gap. They make too much to qualify for Idaho’s limited Medicaid program, but not enough to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he believed legislators are willing to hear out Otter on the coverage plan. “They all have questions,” Bedke said, but “I think people are going to give it a look.”

But an array of health groups that gathered for a news conference after the governor’s speech said the program won’t solve the problem, and Idaho needs to expand Medicaid to cover things like hospitalization, emergency room care and cancer care to that group.

Bedke said he supports the governor’s push to improve schools and believes most other lawmakers do as well.

But he noted that between K-12 schools and higher education, education overall takes up 63 percent of the state budget. “Those types of increases in that part of the budget makes it difficult to manage the other 37 percent of the budget,” he said.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, had a less positive response to Otter’s message. “I thought it was going in the wrong direction. The general tenor is spending more money,” Barbieri said.

Minority Democrats from the House and Senate said Otter didn’t go far enough on either education or health care and called for raising the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage and re-examining all existing tax breaks.

Other items Otter included in his budget proposal to lawmakers:

Funding for merit-based raises for state employees, averaging 3 percent.

A $2 million boost to the Constitutional Defense Fund, which covers lawsuits – largely losing ones.

$5 million to reform Idaho’s public defender system, which is being challenged in a state court lawsuit as unconstitutional.

A $12 million investment in STEM education next year, to boost science, technology, engineering and math programs.

$12 million for water projects next year.

$5 million in startup funds for a new community college in eastern Idaho, if voters there agree to kick in local property taxes.

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